Greetings, Dear Readers!
Most of you are likely familiar with the four Elements and their association with the four cardinal points of the compass. The usual pattern in most modern traditions places Air in the east, Fire in the south, Water in the west and Earth in the north – an arrangement often attributed to the “four winds” of the earth-plane. A more stellar arrangement (based on astrology) places Fire in the east, Earth in the south, Air in the west and Water in the North. (See later in this post for more on that.)
I just had Ravin Digitalis ask me if I was aware of any tradition that assigns Air to the north and Earth to the east – and if such a tradition could be traced back to 5000 BCE. In my response, I cover many different associations of Elements to directions and where they (or where they likely) came from. I think you might find it interesting:
To my knowledge, there are no systems of correspondences of Elements to directions that go back to 5000 BCE. The earliest such correspondences could have arisen would have been in cultures that developed astrology – likely going back no further than Babylon. Not even Egypt had such correspondences that I know of – though they did have the four Sons of Horus as the pillars of the four directions (associated with the arms and legs of Nut), I’ve never seen any Egyptian text that associates them directly with four Elements.
From astrology we have Fire in the East (Aries), Earth in the South (Capricorn), Air in the West (Libra) and Water in the North (Cancer) – an arrangement that still existed when Agrippa wrote his work (see Three Books of Occult Philosophy – Scale of the Number Four). Another, perhaps sidereal, version would use the fixed signs: Leo in the East, Taurus in the South, Aquarius in the West and Scorpius in the North.
I’ve never found anything definitive on where the Air in the East arrangement – common in the Golden Dawn, Thelema and thus Wicca – came from. However, the GD was very into Ezekiel’s vision – which shows God’s Throne supported by the four Kherubs whose faces are Man (Aquarius) in the front, Eagle (Scorpius) behind, Lion (Leo) to the right and Bull (Taurus) to the left. If you face the Throne Eastward, and assume that “right” and “left” are from the perspective of the Throne itself, that gives the usual arrangement of Elements to the directions: Air-East, Water-West, Fire-South, Earth-North.
However, there is some ambiguity here. In Ezekiel’s vision (approximately 600 BCE), the Throne is not facing the East – he describes it as coming out of the North and facing/moving Southward. That would put the Man (Air) facing South and the Eagle (Water) facing North. If we still assume Ezekiel’s mention of “right” and “left” are from the perspective of the Throne, that would put the Lion (Fire) facing the West and the Ox (Bull) facing East. That would give you Earth in the East, but not Air in the North.
BUT – if we assume Ezekiel was referring to his *own* right and left, the two Kherubs would be reversed so the Lion would face East and the Bull would face West. But that doesn’t give you Air in the North or Earth in the East…
The only other example I know of (off the top of my head at least) is from the Key of Solomon, where directions are given for the construction of a magick carpet. There, one is told that Michael (Fire) is in the East, Raphael (Air) is in the North, Gabriel (Water) is in the West and Muriel (Earth) is in the South. This one gives you Air in the North, but not Earth in the East. lol
So I don’t see any traditional source for the arrangement [you mention] – and sure as hell nothing going back as far as 5000 BCE! lol Good luck!
If anyone knows of other associations and their origins, feel free to reply below and share with us.
UPDATE: Looks like Alex Sumner can tell us where the Golden Dawn got its “Four Winds” (aka Seasonal) attribution of the Elements to their directions. In the same blog, he reveals something fascinating: the “ADNI Formula” (as opposed to the better-known “YHVH Formula”). Awesome!